In prefacing this discussion, it should be stated clearly that the invasion of a sovereign state is unacceptable and impermissible, be it the US invading Iraq or Russia invading Ukraine. However, the issue here is the double standard applied in the two invasions.
The US got away with invading Iraq in 2003 under false pretenses, and Russia, having more reason to invade Ukraine, is now considered to be a pariah. As a deviation from the conventional wisdom, let’s take stock of how the Western media has portrayed both and the hypocrisy that this has entailed.
Every time a sovereign state is invaded, we are perplexed and tell ourselves that such invasions cannot possibly occur, especially in the 21st century. Today, it is Ukraine’s turn to face the grim horrors of invasion. Another case in point will tell us that we never learn from the fallout of invasions.
In 2002, then US president George W Bush used the term “axis of evil” in his state of the union address to describe North Korea, Iran, and Iraq. Bush identified the three countries as a dangerous network of terrorist states capable of threatening the US.
However, it was ludicrous to think that Iraq posed a security threat to the US, and despite the unequivocal conclusion that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction and had nothing to do with the 11 September 2001 attacks, the US mobilised enough support to get away with an invasion of the country in 2003, one that was not much different from today’s invasion of Ukraine by Russia.
Yet, the world ignored the deception and stood behind the invaders. In retrospect, and compared to today’s uproar against Russia, no significant condemnation emerged.
The invasion of Iraq led to the occupation of the country that lasted until 2011 and had powerful consequences until 2017. It created a powerful Al-Qaeda presence in Iraq, proliferating sectarian strife, further Iranian influence in the region, a massive death toll, and a lasting humanitarian crisis. As far as the invasion of Iraq is concerned, Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair, also a strong supporter and participant in the invasion, got away with murder, no pun intended.
During the invasion, the world stood still for a moment, fumbled somewhat, but soon enough turned its back and let the Iraqis face their wretched destiny alone. There was no uproar in the Western media similar to what we are seeing today over Ukraine, no call for unprecedented sanctions, and no hint of a nuclear-driven war. There were also no calls for diplomatic moves to stop the invasion and definitely no closure of air space to the invader.
The Western media misled the world into accepting the invasion, siding with the US administration. In his book, Hate, Inc., US author Matt Taibbi speaks about how the Western media sold the Iraq war and got away with it, saying that the Washington Post and New York Times were key editorial-page drivers of the conflict; MSNBC unhired anchors Phil Donahue and Jesse Ventura over their war scepticism; CNN flooded the airwaves with generals and ex-Pentagon stoolies; and broadcast outlets ABC, CBS, NBC and PBS stacked the deck even more.
In a two-week period before the invasion, these US networks had just one American guest out of 267 who questioned the war, according to the organisation Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting.
Undoubtedly, the Western media chooses its battles and sides with whomever it pleases. While the invasion of Iraq by the US was considered a liberation, the invasion of Ukraine by Russia is seen as a cut-throat invasion in the eyes of the Western media.
But in a University of Chicago lecture, astonishingly from 2015, US political scientist John J Mearsheimer spoke on the causes and consequences of the Ukraine crisis. He faulted the West for the current outcome, seeing it as peeling Ukraine from Russia’s orbit and incorporating it into the West. “Our basic aim was to make Ukraine a Western bulwark on Russia’s border,” Mearsheimer said.
Diana Johnstone in Consortium News affirms the above. “The official US line is that the Kremlin threatens Europe by its aggressive expansionism, but when the strategists talk among themselves the story is different. The goal is to use sanctions, propaganda and other measures (‘over-extension’) that the US can exploit to Russia’s detriment,” she says.
Starting with the Clinton administration in the 1990s, the US began moving NATO eastwards towards the Russian border and integrating Ukraine economically into the West, as it had earlier integrated the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and the Baltic States. Russia, apprehensive of Ukraine’s moves towards the European Union, warned the West against such actions.
Due to Ukraine’s proximity to Russia, Russian President Vladimir Putin sees such moves as an existential threat. “Georgia and Ukraine becoming part of NATO is a direct threat to Russia,” he has said. “Are we deploying missiles near the US border? No, we are not. It is the United States that has come to our home with its missiles and is already standing on our doorstep.”
The West would never allow a Russian presence in the Western hemisphere. The Cuban Missile Crisis was a case in point in the 1960s when the former Soviet Union tried to put military forces in Cuba. Putin is demanding the same deal today: that the US should not move its military forces to the Russian border.
The Western media has escalated its attacks on Russia. But that is not an anomaly, as the Western media has always broadcast a negative picture of Russia. In an article appearing on the website of the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), the author writes that “nobody loves Russia,” arguing that the “western media have perpetuated the myth of Putin’s ‘neo-Soviet autocracy’.”
“The American press has ignored all other sides of Russia by making the ‘dark side’ central to its coverage,” he says.
The Western media acts in accordance with US rules, and its narrative focuses on an oppressive Russia with Putin enjoying dictatorial powers. The invasion of Ukraine allows the Western media to continue its assault, as it focuses on an anti-Putin and anti-Russia discourse.
It claims Russia is targeting civilians in Ukraine. But civilians are seen moving about and heading to safer ground, panicking true, but still safe enough because they are not targeted per se. Reporters are seen in the middle of streets and walkways and not in danger. Russia is bombing key infrastructure, oil terminals, and gas facilities in Ukraine. But targeting civilians is not its aim.
The Western media has focused on the notion that the invasion opens the way for further expansion by Russian military forces into Europe. This is a far-fetched assumption that the US Harvard Gazette has reiterated. “A key step for the US and its NATO allies should be tripling combat-ready troops in the Baltics and NATO-allied eastern Europe to deter any thought of a Ukraine-style incursion there,” it says.
It is exacerbating the situation by rubbing salt into the wound. Nataliya Gumenyuk, a Ukranian journalist, said that “I am in general critical of parachute journalism, a foreign reporting cliché with a very binary approach. It’s clear they know very little about our situation…We are not a rich country, but the usual clichés of war are there.”
It is to be hoped that diplomatic dialogue will begin immediately and that Russia, Ukraine, and the Western allies will sit together and negotiate a deal satisfying to all concerned. In the meantime, the Western media should downplay rather than overplay the intensity of the situation, so that we don’t wake up to find the world on the verge of nuclear war.
* The writer is the author of Cairo Rewind on the First Two Years of Egypt’s Revolution, 2011-2013.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 March, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.